Among the people of the Qingsong Valley on the Chinese island province of Hainan, there is a story about a hunter who kills a gibbon. He goes into the forest with his gun and listens for the ape’s telltale song. He follows the song, searching the canopy until he spots a spindly gold or black shape leaping between the branches of a fig tree or feasting on a cluster of lychee fruit. He shoots, and the animal falls. But when the hunter returns home with his quarry, he becomes sick and dies. And his family members also become sick and die. In a variation on the tale, no one dies but everyone goes blind.
Li Wenyong, a forest ranger from the Qingsong village of Miao Cun, told me that everyone in the valley knows this story, and according to some, it’s the reason why Miao Cun is the only place in the world where you can still hear the Hainan gibbon sing.
Miao Cun, where Li Wenyong lives, is a cluster of about 80 concrete buildings surrounded by glittering rice paddies and red rows of rubber trees. Up the slope to the west of the village, just beyond the rubber trees, begins the blue-green forest of Bawangling National Nature Reserve, a 300-square-kilometer protected area that’s home to the last remaining population of the Hainan black-crested gibbon (Nomascus hainanus). With a total population of about 30 individuals, the Hainan gibbon has the unenviable distinction of World’s Rarest Ape, and possibly World’s Rarest Mammal. On the road to Miao Cun, there is a billboard propped up in an empty field. “Save the Hainan Gibbon!” it reads, as a larger-than-life pair of the worried-looking apes gaze out at passing cars and motos.
In Qingsong Valley, as in most of Hainan’s mountainous interior country, the people are primarily of the Indigenous Li and Miao ethnic minorities, and many of the villages are built within and around the patchwork of nature reserves that protect the island’s remaining rainforest. These communities are some of the poorest in China.
As they did long before any of the reserves existed on Hainan, people from those villages hunt wild animals and collect plants from the forest. Many have an intimate knowledge of the region’s ecology. In one survey conducted in 2005, Li and Miao people in Qingsong Valley knew where in the forest to find plants like Katsumada galangal and Ling Chih for medicines, and yellow, red, and white rattan palm for making furniture. And hunters knew where to find animals such as box turtles, pythons, macaques, wild boars, pangolins, muntjak deer, civets and—although they’re reportedly no longer a target—gibbons.
Since research began on the Hainan gibbon—one of several gibbon species in China, all listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—the scientists who have come to the island to study and help protect the species have relied on that store of local ecological knowledge to answer basic questions about the beleaguered ape: Where do they live? How many are there? What threats do they face? This research has found a once relatively abundant species stripped of its habitat and hunted nearly to extinction within just a few decades. But it’s also revealed a link between a changing culture and a changing environment, and how they’ve changed together.
The first scientist to turn to local people for help studying the Hainan gibbon was a primatologist from Guangzhou named Liu Zhenhe. Based in part on his interviews with Li and Miao hunters in the 1960s, Liu estimated that around 2,000 gibbons lived across the highlands as recently as 1950. (A recent genetic analysis suggests there might have been as many as 10,000 gibbons in Hainan at the turn of the century.)
When Liu returned to Hainan in the late ‘70s and early ’80s, again questioning locals, he was shocked to discover that the gibbon’s population had plummeted to just 30 or 40 apes, restricted to a small area of forest west of Miao Cun and to one other forest reserve 20 kilometers to the east. He attributed this steep decline to more intensive hunting combined with habitat loss as plantations replaced the island’s rainforests. According to later reports, the increase in hunting by local people—some of them members of the provincial forestry bureau—was due to a growing population’s growing demand for wild forest products, including a medicinal paste made by boiling a gibbon whole.
Such products provided an attractive source of income for people living in Hainan’s impoverished mountain counties, where in 2005 the average annual income of a rubber farmer was about $200. A three-lined box turtle might sell for as much as $3,000 per kilo; a single gibbon for $1,500.
“The Miao and also the Li people around Bawangling, they lost the traditional kind of respect for the forest,” said Bosco Chan, a biologist at Hong Kong-based conservation charity Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden who has studied the gibbon for two decades. They used to rely on all sorts of resources from the forests in order to survive, he said. “But that’s history. When we talk about conservation in developing countries, we really have to appreciate how difficult the condition was.”
“The people around Bawangling, they lost the traditional kind of respect for the forest. They used to rely on all sorts of resources from the forests in order to survive. But that’s history.”
— Bosco Chan, biologist
After Liu Zhenhe raised the alarm about the vanishing gibbons, the Hainan government established Bawangling Reserve west of Miao Cun in 1980. But poorly funded patrols were unable to prevent hunting and logging in the forest. And while Bawangling became a national nature reserve in 1988 and the gibbon was made a protected species, deforestation continued elsewhere across the island through the ’90s, driven by a burgeoning rubber industry and a surging human population in the new Hainan “special economic zone,” which opened the island to foreign investment and free-market policies. By 1999, just 4 percent of Hainan’s primary forest remained, and the 30 or so gibbons at Bawangling were believed to be the only ones left. Then, in 2003, a major survey found that the gibbon population in Bawangling had fallen further—to just 13 individuals.
The dire situation provoked more intensive conservation efforts from the Hainan government and NGOs, which included planting fruit trees in Bawangling and linking fragmented forest canopies with ropes. To help alleviate poverty around the reserve, the government also subsidized cash crops like rubber, betel nut, and honey, and Kadoorie Farm hired locals to patrol the reserve. Remarkably, a new gibbon was born each year after 2003, and by 2014, scientists believed there were about 25 gibbons living within the postage stamp of forest west of Miao Cun. As far as they and reserve officials knew, those were the only gibbons left.
But among Li and Miao people around the highlands, there were rumors about gibbons surviving in other forests—stories. And stories, even the tallest tales, have their uses.
It wouldn’t be the first time that scientists had come across stories while searching for gibbons in Hainan. In 1861, Robert Swinhoe, a British naturalist surveying the island, heard about a “black ape” living in the mountains, home of “wild tribes.” Swinhoe, angling for a specimen he could make known to science, asked around. “Everyone knew that such an animal existed, and many had seen it; but they all spoke of the great difficulty of keeping it alive,” he later wrote. Swinhoe left Hainan without a gibbon, but he did have one memorable encounter: An imperial magistrate on the coast told Swinhoe that the gibbon’s long arm bones were magical and made good chopsticks, capable of sensing poisoned food.
Whether or not that magistrate had ever in fact seen a gibbon, let alone fashioned dinnerware from their ulnae, his ideas about them were drawn from a deep well of gibbon lore in China. “There is more material available on the gibbon and his relation with man than on any other primate,” wrote Robert van Gulik in his seminal 1967 monograph The Gibbon in China. Though he wasn’t a scientist, van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat, scholar and mystery novelist, was the first to tap this hefty cultural record for historical ecological purposes, and his work would inspire the scientists searching for gibbons in this century.
In his book, van Gulik, who kept gibbons as pets in his various ambassadorial manors, explains how ancient Chinese people came to see the gibbon as the aristocrat among the apes. The gibbons’ preference for remote forests and aversion to walking on the ground gave them an “unworldly” reputation. Their tendency to form tight-knit family groups and ignore the antics of monkeys made them seem “gentlemanly.” Daoists interpreted their distinctive singing as a sign that the gibbon breathed the mystical cosmic substance Qì, making them immortal and able to transform into humans at will. The noble gibbon became the province of poets and painters.
Among the poets, the call of the gibbon from far-flung forests was a common trope. In one famous example, the Tang Dynasty (8th century) poet Li Bai, while passing through the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River, wrote: “On either shore the gibbons’ song sounded without pause,/ While my light boat skimmed past ten thousand somber crags.” Even in Hainan, then a backwater territory from the perspective of the imperial court, the Song Dynasty (11th century) poet and calligrapher Su Shih wrote of gibbons while exiled to the island: “From summit to valley, the verdant mountains sing with the music of gibbons and birds.” The gibbon was also a favorite subject of Song Dynasty master painters, some of whom were known to go skulking through the wilderness in order to paint anatomically accurate gibbons from life.
Yet despite all the attention the “immortal” gibbon received, the gibbon’s population across China gradually declined as human numbers increased. Later research would detail this process, but its findings were anticipated by van Gulik. In his book, he charts on a map of China all the places and dates the artists encountered gibbons, of all species. The map is clear: From the Southern Song to the People’s Republic, the gibbons’ range shrank like an evaporating lake, until all that was left in China were a few puddles, and in Hainan, a drop.
Van Gulik’s most striking observation, though, is that the gibbon’s decline in China was not only geographical, but also cultural. As encounters with real gibbons became rarer over the centuries, representations of the gibbon began to depart from reality. The gibbon became a mere artistic convention, a genre reiterating previous depictions.
The poets rhapsodized the somber calls of gibbons in the Three Gorges long after they went extinct from the region. “Gibbons” showed up in paintings with red faces and bums, stealing crops and walking on the ground like the common macaque. And some artists committed the ultimate sin against the unfortunate ape: They gave the gibbon a tail.
In January, I traveled to Miao Cun, hoping to hear the Hainan gibbon sing. When I arrived late one afternoon, people were returning from work in the fields and forests. A group of men played billiards outside the village dry-goods shop. Three women conspired by a front door, black hens circling them. A man strolling outside his house told me that no fewer than four different kinds of frogs were responsible for the chorus of chirping in the rice paddies. With his thumb and forefinger, he showed me their sizes.
Eventually, I arrived at the home of Li Wenyong, a stolid Miao forest ranger in his 50s. There I spoke with him and three other rangers—two Li and one Miao—who worked in Bawangling. One of the rangers, Zhang Zhicheng, an affable Li man adept at making sense of my lousy Mandarin, translated to Li language for the others. (The Li have lived on Hainan longer, and are more numerous than the Miao, so the Miao learn to speak Li language, though the Li generally don’t learn the Miao language. Most, except for the very old, know some Mandarin or Hainanese.) Each ranger wore a gray uniform stitched with a patch of a cartoonish illustration of a gibbon.
Over thimble-size glasses of beer and Miao-made moonshine, I learned that the rangers had all worked as rubber farmers before starting at the reserve in 2010 as part of Kadoorie Farm’s co-management project. All made about $240 a month, hiking into the forest each morning, taking notes on the gibbons, and patrolling for traps or signs of illegal logging. As we spoke, children roamed the courtyard outside the dim kitchen, happily carrying fistfuls of cake.
When I explained that I was hoping to hear the gibbon’s dawn song the following morning, Zhang took out his phone and played a recording he had made in the reserve. First, a male made a succession of birdlike, rising whoops. I started to comment, but Zhang shushed me. The table was quiet. Then a female suddenly joined the male’s call with her tree-rattling bellow. The table, now a bit buzzed from the moonshine, cheered: “Nǚrén!” (“Women!”)
The whole scene in Miao Cun was much like what a team of scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) encountered in 2015 when they went looking into the rumors about gibbons outside Bawangling.
“There had been this rippling, constant, ‘Oh, no but I saw a gibbon not that long ago…’ Or, ‘My cousin’s cousin said that they heard a gibbon…,’” Jessica Bryant, an Australian conservation biologist now at University of Roehampton in London, recalled over Skype in April. In 2015, Bryant was just completing her dissertation on the Hainan gibbon, which found low genetic diversity among the apes in Bawangling. Finding survivors outside the reserve was a long shot, but for a population as small and restricted as the Hainan gibbon’s, Bryant told me, even a single additional family group would be of immense value, an “injection of genetic diversity” and resilience against threats like typhoons or hunters who hadn’t gotten the memo.
To make matters worse, gibbons sing less frequently when they’re alone. “You could spend hours, days, months trying to do listening surveys, but if there are so few that they just don’t sing, you’re gonna be very hard pressed to find them.”
— Jessica Bryant, conservation biologist
The trouble was that when searching for a few small apes rumored to be somewhere within thousands of square kilometers of forest, it’s hard to know where to start. (The technical term for species in this situation is “cryptic remnant population.”) To make matters worse, gibbons sing less frequently when they’re alone. “You could spend hours, days, months trying to do listening surveys,” said Bryant, “but if there are so few that they just don’t sing, you’re gonna be very hard pressed to find them.”
To narrow down the search, Bryant and a crew of Chinese graduate students led by ZSL biologist Samuel Turvey turned once again to local people and their stories. Rather like van Gulik plotting the poets on the map of China, the team would collect people’s stories about gibbons to zero in on where they might still be living. “There was enough muttering and murmuring of stories that were coming back to us that we thought it was worth investigating,” Bryant said.
In a scene repeated hundreds of times in villages across the gibbon’s historical range, the team sat on squat stools in kitchens and on stoops and questioned Li and Miao farmers and forest workers about animals in their forests. The team asked about the gibbons—in Mandarin “chángbìyuán,” which means “long-arm ape,” but also rendered by linguistically diverse respondents as “bang,” “bian,” “fei,” “guan,” “men,” “vei,” “vien” and “wei”— and also macaques, pangolins, sambar deer, and giant South American anteaters, which do not live in Hainan, to test for accuracy: You saw a gibbon? Really? What about one of those giant anteaters?
The team also showed respondents photos and played recordings of calls from different gibbon species to help distinguish whether someone’s answers were from lived experience or some other source, like TV. “We’d be interested in any stories that they had,” said Bryant. She remembered in many villages people gathered around, eager to share their experience—or their cousin’s cousin’s experience—of the gibbon. “Then usually someone would go and get tea or jackfruit or whatever was in season.” Mango. Banana. Rice wine. Moonshine.
Nestled among the questions about gibbon sightings was what the researchers called their “open-ended TEK question”: Have you heard any stories about gibbons or anything else about them, such as uses? “TEK” refers to “Traditional Ecological Knowledge,” which is the body of knowledge and beliefs about the natural world that a culture accumulates over generations. Ethnographers distinguish “TEK” from “Local Ecological Knowledge,” or “LEK,” which is knowledge about the natural world from an individual’s own lived experience. The distinction was key to identify which stories might lead to real, living gibbons and which stories were just stories.
After more than 700 interviews across the highlands, Bryant and Turvey analyzed the LEK data—the stuff of lived experience. At Limushan—“Mother of the Li Mountain”— two people had given convincing accounts of a one-armed gibbon. It was their best lead. Because foreigners were not permitted in the reserve at Limushan, a group led by Fan Pengfei, an expert on gibbons from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, went to investigate, fingers crossed. But after more than two weeks in the reserve listening for the gibbon’s songs and playing recordings of gibbon calls into the forest to incite a response, nothing. The gibbons living in the core area of Bawangling were, after all that, probably all the N. hainanus there were. It was a “crushing blow,” Bryant remembered.
Yet the effort wasn’t for naught: Although the LEK survey didn’t reveal any cryptic gibbons, the TEK question paid off. All those interviews had turned up a menagerie of unrecorded stories and knowledge held by Li and Miao people about gibbons. This ranged from information about hunting gibbons and observations about gibbon behavior to full-blown gibbon folktales in all their variants.
For instance, in one story a gibbon makes a bet with a monkey/worm about coming down to the ground; the gibbon loses the bet when he climbs down and dies/goes blind. In another, a poor child/orphan flees/is forced by a wicked stepmother to forage in the forest/guard crops/eat wood/poo so runs away and turns into a gibbon to sing a sad song. In another, lazy/untalented people who want food without work turn into gibbons who only need fruit to eat. In another variation, a lazy person turns into a gibbon, and, when the monkeys mock him, uses a squash to pretend he too has a tail.
Some of these stories were related in older accounts, but many were unknown outside Hainan’s Li and Miao communities. This was stuff Robert van Gulik, relying on imperial Han Chinese sources and documents, never knew about. Some of the stories were even new to the children and grandchildren listening to their tattooed elders speak.
However, when referenced with the gibbon’s decline, a disturbing pattern emerged from the TEK data, which Turvey, Bryant, and a folklorist from the University of Bristol named Kate McClune described in a 2018 study: People who lived near forests where gibbons had longest been extinct were the least likely to know any stories about them. Further, older people were more likely than younger ones to have stories about the gibbon, suggesting that traditional knowledge about the natural world had not been passed between generations, and changes to the environment had been forgotten. (Curiously, the reverse was true for practical components of traditional gibbon knowledge, such as where to find them in the forest and how difficult they are to shoot. This knowledge was most common where gibbons had longest been extinct.)
This was to say that not only had Li and Miao traditional knowledge about the gibbon eroded in Hainan, but that this loss of knowledge was connected to the loss of the gibbon. The gibbon had disappeared from forests across the island. And with it, so had the stories.
The roosters woke me much too early, but I didn’t want to miss anything, so I went out bleary-eyed to Li Wenyong’s courtyard to hear Miao Cun wake up. For a while it was just the roosters and the frogs. Then some yapping dogs. There was a half moon and uncommon stars. As the sky started to lighten, I could hear people stirring in other houses, shifting fires and sloshing out water. A few moto engines sputtered on. A baby cried. And then, just before the sun, the gibbons.
It was not difficult to understand how the storytellers heard sadness in the song, like an orphan child crying or the ballad of a weary traveler. The male song was first, a series of slide-whistle whoops that seemed to emanate from across the dark ridge.
Li Wenyong’s wife Xiumei dashed out of the kitchen wielding a huge ladle. “Tīng dàole ma?” she asked, smiling. “Did you hear it?”
The males were joined by a guttural, rolling-R, twitter scream, more of a warble than a whoop. This was the female’s triumphant response. Sung together with the male’s, it was the Hainan gibbon’s duet, one of the distinguishing features of the species, and how the few Hainan gibbons there locate and unite with the others.
Though we can’t know definitively why these gibbons near Miao Cun survived while the rest disappeared from Hainan, a number of people I spoke with believe the story of the hunter and the gibbon may have played a part. “They were hunting the gibbons everywhere, except the Qingsong Miao…” Chan, the biologist from Kadoorie Farm, told me. “And almost the only reason why the Hainan gibbon is still around is because there’s a local taboo—specific to the Qingsong Miao folklore—that someone went and hunted the gibbon and the whole family died.” Bryant told me she thought this story had been more effective than any legislation protecting gibbons in Bawangling.
Though he had more reservations, Turvey, the ZSL scientist who has studied traditional knowledge and threatened species outside Hainan as well, thought it was possible that the story had protected the gibbons. And that particular story aside, he believed that traditional knowledge and the loss of that knowledge certainly had been a factor in the gibbon’s fate.
“It’s undeniably the case that local knowledge about biodiversity is a powerful tool to support sustainable interactions between people and threatened species,” Turvey wrote me.
There is evidence elsewhere that local and Indigenous knowledge can help conserve species. In Yunnan province in the southwest of China, for example, the primatologist Fan Pengfei and Turvey found last year that a group of the endangered Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing), a relative of the Hainan gibbon, had survived in unprotected forest due to a stigma against hunting them by local Lisu people. In other places, Indigenous and non-Indigenous conservationists have worked to spread traditional stories that support conservation and to involve Indigenous worldviews and governance to protect ecosystems.
But that knowledge can only contribute to conservation if it is also conserved. As the survey in Hainan revealed, the Li and Miao ecological knowledge that has informed research on the gibbon from the very beginning has eroded, as have other elements of Li and Miao traditional culture and language, often due to the same pressures of modernization and globalization that led to the gibbon’s decline. And as the stories disappeared, so did the gibbons. Everywhere, the gibbons grew tails. Except maybe in Miao Cun.
“You can send a troop of an army to try and protect the gibbon,” Chan said. “But the local people spend their whole life looking for things in the forest. If they really want to, they can still sneak in and kill your gibbon overnight…So you really have to gain their trust, first of all, and then support.”
When I left Hainan, I noticed in the airport a large advertisement for island tourism featuring a gibbon. A golden female was leaping out of a tree, presumably into a greener, safer world. I thought about everything the gibbon had been in China. Orphan. Aristocrat. World’s Rarest. I wondered what it might become in what’s shaping up to be a transformed future, free of guns and rubber trees—free of people.
Last October, locals a few miles down the valley from Miao Cun reported hearing gibbons in the forest. Dutifully, the rangers from Miao Cun went to investigate, but unlike all the other times, they found a pair of gibbons—one male and one female. Dubbed “Group E,” they are the first gibbons to be found outside the core area of Bawangling in nearly 40 years, and could mean that the species is moving past a longstanding population bottleneck. When I met him in his office in Hainan’s capital, Haikou, Liu Hui, Director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Protected Areas, and Management at Hainan University, told me Group E represents “a new era for Hainan gibbon conservation.”
And Group E arrives with another auspicious change for the Hainan gibbon. By the end of this year, China’s central government is expected to establish a national park on Hainan. The park, one of 10 planned to pilot China’s national park system, will link the existing reserves in central Hainan to form a 4,400-square-kilometer protected area, blanketing one-seventh of the island. In January, the park’s newly formed research institute, chaired by Zhang Xinsheng, president of the IUCN, named the Hainan gibbon the “flagship species” of the whole thing.
All this attention from powerful players in China will mean more research and more resources to protect the gibbon and its habitat. It’s less clear what the national park will mean for the people who live and work within its boundaries.
The Proposed Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park
One of 10 national parks that China plans to create in the coming years, Hainan’s park will link existing reserves in the central region of the island to form a 4,400-square-kilometer protected area. Its “flagship species” is the Hainan gibbon (Nomascus hainanus). (Area of the proposed park is approximate.)
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